A reader of my recent post, “Nation-States Are A Plague On Our Species” has posed this question: “So…my question is…how better to organize societies?” It’s sort of the who wants to be a trillionaire question.
As I suggested in my response to Mark Schlack’s comment, the evolution of our existing social systems, capitalism and the nation-state system, for example, took hundreds of years. We clearly don’t have the sort of luxurious timeline required to let cultural evolution find the solutions. Trial and error on a global scale is not the path.
A first requirement might be the development of a new set of values about what our lives are all about. Capitalism encourages and develops desires for more and more stuff, products and services. This is especially true for the middle and upper classes. This is part of the unsustainability of the capitalist system. The poor remain stuck in a mode of being aspirants to more stuff. They also suffer further because capitalism does not generate enough housing and other basics for the poor. Its not profitable.
Alan G. Johnson has summed up this critique:
If you look at most human societies over the last several hundred thousand years, the point of economic systems has been quite simple and unsurprising—to provide for the needs of the people who participate in them. The tribe needs a way to come up with food and shelter because the people of the tribe have to eat and get out of the rain. Cooperation and sharing have been important values because they make for efficient production and it’s how you make sure everyone gets what they need. Which has been the point in most places for most of history.
The most important thing to realize about industrial capitalism is that it is not organized to meet the needs of the people who participate in it. It is not the first system for which this has been true, but it is the latest version and it dominates the world. It’s true that capitalists have to produce things that people need (or, if not, to persuade them that they do) in order to sell goods and make a profit. If, as a result, capitalism does happen to meet the needs of people, that’s fine, but that is not the point of the system. The point is to allow individuals to compete with one another in order to maximize personal wealth. How this affects everyone else is, within fairly broad limits, largely beside the point.1
Some guidance could come from some ancient people’s relationship to the earth. We would see ourselves as partners with the earth, stewards. Sustainability within the scope of the planet would be central. Another dimension might be to focus more on our intimate social relationships and achieve happiness without the need for an ever-expanding consumption of “stuff”. The material aspects of life would be marked by a satisfaction with the fulfillment of basic requirements for food, housing, education, and healthcare. No more marking our territory and social standing with multi-million dollar dwellings, jet planes, super yachts, and so on. Our social territory would be marked by the buoyancy and energy of our social relations. Having fun would definitely fit in.
This all seems happy, but then we need to turn to the question of how to make choices about what needs to be produced. What are the social mechanisms to decide what needs to be produced by whom, where, and how is it distributed? How do we assure that we achieve this within the carrying capacity of our planet.
Faron Sage has written a recent survey of alternatives to capitalism. It is quite thorough and worth a read.
So, there are some alternative ways of organizing society. Daunting, but some solid thinking is in existence.
The Real Problem
The real problem is how to achieve a global cultural understanding and governing ethos within a fairly narrow time frame? One can view the nation-state as simply a much larger version of the small tribal units that dominated our first 290,000 years as a species. Our culture is filled with fears of others and tools to manage these fears. These range from some cooperation to warfare. You can see these features in both tribal societies as well as our present nation-state system. I wish I had something useful to say about this real problem.
- Alan G. Johnson, “If Not Capitalism, What?,” Allan G. Johnson (blog), September 26, 2012, https://www.agjohnson.us/glad/if-not-capitalism-what/.